Behind the Scenes gives you an in-depth look at the stories, technology, and science behind the project.

We Dream, We Dare, We Drive

Since Day One, people have said this project was just a little crazy.  Perhaps that is a bit of an understatement, yet we couldn’t agree more.  It is that very adventuring spirit that has pushed us to continue to go further, to do something few would ever consider to dare.  It is in these moments that should bring this project to a halt, when the mission we have set ourselves so long ago comes under question, it instead finds new life.  It is by the drive of so many committed individuals, who come together to do what some have called the impossible, we find strength.

The Racing Bug

I was in the back yard of Warton Hearst, sitting on the porch of a hot Philadelphia summer. I was nine years old and, after reading a story of Big Daddy Don Garlits sitting in a dragster with melting tires, I knew it would be the defining moment for me.  I would later find the same Mechanix Illustrated magazine at a local library sale.  I still have that copy today.  From then on all I wanted to do was go drag racing.  I would walk about a mile and a half to get home.  The time was spent dreaming in intricate detail how I was going to achieve that goal.

Lenovo ThinkPad P50s – For Those Who Do

Think back to the last time that you opened your computer.  Did you ever stop to think, even for just a moment, who built it?  Who designed the computer that powers everything that you do?  Who programmed the software that connects you to every other computer in the world?  Who is behind this marvelous blend of the physical and digital?  It is doers.   It is people who set a goal of doing something amazing, and then doing exactly that.  But over time, we come to take for granted everything that has been accomplished.

Steering the Eagle

In the early days of the North American Eagle, the question of how to steer the car became one of significant concern. After all, how was a driver supposed to take a jet car on wheels, traveling at supersonic speeds, and make it turn left and right? It was a complex problem. Minimum steering capability was required; a total of 3 degrees left to right. Just enough adjustment to hold the car running in a straight line down the course. That’s when the idea of utilizing hydraulics came up; normal mechanical steering simply wouldn’t cut it. This presented another problem. No one on the team was much of a hydraulics expert.

The Making of From Speed to Sound

Everyone has a story to tell.  What makes each story special is not simply the finale, but the journey that led to the ending.  The North American Eagle has been long defined by one simple premise, to build a car that is capable of going supersonic, and break the World Land Speed Record of 763 MPH.  To do that, the North American Eagle team took a scrapped jet fighter plane’s fuselage, one without wings, and added wheels, so that they could do something incredible.  The majority of the writing that is often released about the project is rather technical in nature, relating directly to the car.  One day, I had the realization that what made this project special wasn’t just the car.  It was people.  It was people that built something that took one’s breath away at the very sight of it.  It was people that dreamed of the impossible, and turned it into a reality.

Lenovo ThinkPad P50s – Surviving a Day

As both a college student and head of the IT for the North American Eagle, it’s my job to stay ahead of the game, even when that means being busy all day. One of the predicaments that I’ve always had with this is actually having a computer that can keep up with me. My work tends to vary from writing papers and coding complex school projects, to editing new videos and cloud infrastructure development for the North American Eagle. It tends to keep me on my toes. It also means that a computer has to be able to keep up with heavy duty software development and virtualization, while at the same time be battery friendly. I’m almost always on the go, and rarely find myself close to a power outlet during the day. This makes for a difficult combination to satisfy.

Designing a Website for Land Speed Racing

Talking about the North American Eagle for the first time to someone often means that you really have to impress upon them exactly what it is designed to do. Breaking the World Land Speed Record, well that sounds really cool, but how difficult can that really be? It means that the car is going to go supersonic, but to most people, that has very little meaning. When you finally explain that it will entail going over 750 MPH, sonic boom included, it all begins to become a lot clearer. Suddenly, it all becomes a lot more interesting.

Once More unto the Breach

While in Chicago for the Microsoft Ignite Conference, Ed and I talked at length about the project, and where it was going. We saw it as being a turning point, as powerful new cloud technologies gave us the final tools that we would need to achieve the dream of breaking the world land speed record. One of the interesting points that came out of the conversation, was our agreement that this year marked “The Beginning of the End”. The end to all of our dreams was on fast approach, and we could begin to taste it. We had no idea how true that would end up being.

Lenovo ThinkPad W550s Extreme Review

When you open a computer, the most important thing to you above the power or the looks, is just that it works the way that you want. When it comes to extreme land speed racing, that same value is what we try to key in on. Failure, or in this case system failure, is not an option. At any given time during the run, it is constantly collecting and relaying data back to the team on the ground. With top speeds of up to 850 MPH, it means that decisions can be made in a matter of seconds. There is no second guessing, and there cannot be a delay, for a second could be the difference between life and death. Our use of the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s is certainly an extreme case, but it illustrates the machine’s capacity to fill a wealth of different needs.

Suggesting that a computer can endure extreme conditions is somewhat of an understatement when it comes to working with the North American Eagle. The engine vibrations alone have a tendency to wreak havoc with nearby computers, causing hard drive failures, and other systems to malfunction. When the car is powered on, most nearby computers either shut down to save themselves, or end up shredding their own hard drives because of the vibrations coming off the engine. Inside of the car, temperatures can rise well above 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far outside the range that most computers can still operate. Since we also run on desert lakebeds, the computer must also be able to survive the dirt that accumulates everywhere.

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We have had a longstanding relationship with Lenovo. They have been very kind in providing us a multitude of workstations. The machines have enabled us to push the boundaries of available computing power, while being known for developing rugged computers. When it came time for a new computer for on-board the North American Eagle, we again turned to Lenovo for a machine that could meet our extreme requirements. They suggested a new machine that was due out shortly thereafter, the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s.

The machine was designed as an intersection between great computing power and true portability. With the computer being designed to endure extreme conditions, it fit the bill perfectly for what we needed. (Included to the left is the unboxing video from when the computer first arrived)

For those interested in the specs of the on-board computer, it has an i7–5600U built-in, 16 GB of RAM, a dedicated NVIDIA Quadro K620M video card, and currently runs Windows 10 Pro.

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The computer of course utilizes a 512GB solid-state drive, so that it can continue to operate even with the vibrations from the engine. A surprise addition to the machine was that of the 3K screen. While it not only looks great with the high resolution, it is also touch capable. Because of where the computer is located inside of the Eagle, it can often be difficult to operate it by normal trackpad. The touch screen allows us to access the computer without putting ourselves into an uncomfortable position. An additional upside to the machine is the inclusion of dual batteries (one internal and one external). This allows for us to continue to operate the computer for a long time, even when the car is powered off. The battery works so well that we do not actually have an additional power cable outside of the car, even as we take it out of the shop some evenings to work on it overnight.

Some considerations for this machine include the fact that while the new trackpad is far larger and smoother to use, there is a lack of physical buttons at the bottom of the trackpad, which may seem unusual to those coming from older ThinkPad computers. However, the lower portion of the trackpad serves as a replacement for the buttons. There is also somewhat of an abrupt edge on the lower trackpad that does take some getting use to, but certainly nothing horrendous. These are largely considerations for individuals whom are more accustomed to older generation ThinkPad computers looking to upgrade.

Overall, this is an awesome computer that performs under some of the most extreme of conditions. It is not only great at dealing with a serious workload, but can be taken nearly anywhere with its slim profile. It really is a satisfying computer to use, and holds true to the ThinkPad design style. For anyone looking for a mobile workstation for only the heaviest of workloads, the Lenovo ThinkPad W541 and upcoming ThinkPad P-Series are also excellent choices.

Joining the North American Eagle Team

I always tell people that you have no idea of what the North American Eagle really is until you see it in person. I say this because the first time that I saw it, my jaw dropped. It’s a sight that has few comparisons, and brings out the child in everyone. It’s a reminder of those dreams of our youth, floating in space, or piloting a fighter jet. But the story doesn’t begin when I first saw the Eagle, it started long before that.